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Riccardo Muti, CSO set the tone for new season

Riccardo Muti opened the 2014-15 Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season with his emotional interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. | Todd Rosenberg photo

By Andrew Patner for Sun-Times Media

Beethoven’s 1824 Ninth Symphony is by its historic and artistic nature a work of summing up. It capped the great composer’s symphonic output, setting a mythic bar of “nine” for his successors and it is built towards one of the most remarkable conclusions in the history of music, an outpouring of voices including a massed choir, calling for the brotherhood of man and the unity of all people.

In recent years at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the piece has been a career capstone for musical leaders. Daniel Barenboim closed his tenure as music director in June 2006 with a fiery Ninth in a rapid nightly series of “final Nines” including those of Bruckner and Mahler, leaving the city that night. Bernard Haitink closed his four years as CSO principal conductor in June 2010 with a festival that included all of the symphonies, the only way the Dutch artist wishes to play these works in his late career, with a Ninth of elegance and tenderness.

Riccardo Muti, is, of course, his own man. And so it was no surprise that he might see the Beethoven masterwork as a place of launching — of the new season, of his fifth year as music director in Chicago, of Saturday’s annual Symphony Ball gala. It was and is a gamble, the orchestra coming back from summer vacation and playing with Muti and downtown for the first time in three months. Thursday night’s first subscription concert had much to recommend it and gave insights into Muti’s thinking on the piece. It also gave the sense that the next three performances will build in tension and cohesion.

As with a very different — but similarly independent — musical figure, Pierre Boulez, Muti has expressed both awe of and distance from Beethoven. There will always be some resistance by the Southern Italian musician to the German genius who transplanted himself to Vienna. Muti has spoken of a sort of “force” in Beethoven’s style that he finds a bit cool. In fact, he did not feel that he was ready to conduct the Ninth until he was 20 years into his international career, when he was 46. Eventually he also made a well-regarded recording of the work during his tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

On Thursday, Muti’s emphases initially were on the beginnings. A string sound that told us that even though dramatic changes were three movements away, we were embarking on something special from both the conductor’s and composer’s view. A shimmering sound was placed in our ears that would later reveal connected beginnings and ends. Balance and smoothness of playing were in the full Muti manner. At times, the roughness others find in Beethoven might have been missing. At other times this approach was illuminating.

No more so than in the Adagio movement marked “molto e cantabile,” very slow and singing, that speaks especially to Muti. We heard the threads that not only make up this movement but, as this exhibition of the principal wind soloists — Mathieu Dufour, Eugene Izotov, Stephen Williamson and William Buchman — and their colleagues, strings adding what at first seen to be layers and then reveal themselves to be long threads as well.

And then the finale. As we came toward the “Ode to Joy,” the basses, led by superb young principal Alexander Hanna in his first CSO Ninth, playing so quietly they almost seemed to be asking for a voice, with the cellos then joining and, fraternally, adding to the growing surge of melody. Bass-baritone Eric Owens then called the vocal components to order — or to make us see that apparent disorder was actually about order — “O friends, not these sounds!” Duain Wolfe’s chorus, here containing 155 singers, was much more than an imposing wall of sound but with Muti’s direction an equal instrument with orchestra and soloists. Tenor Matthew Polenzani was a welcome last-minute substitute for an ailing colleague. (William Burden will sing in later performances.) Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund and Russian mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova have less to do individually, but as a quartet, this was the Muti way with equality and complementary teamwork.

Both the low strings and then the massed forces grabbing a hold of Schiller’s poetry of friendship and happiness produced many tears in the hall and much of the requisite joy. Toward the end of the Ode, Muti held and brought forward the women’s voices with a combination of the ethereal and a mighty strength such as I have never heard before. There are many ways to offer this unique work. Muti asked us to think more than we usually might in a concert hall and then rewarded us with a soaring, humane answer to secular prayers.